A Writer’s Notebook: Texas and a chapbook introduction

I just spent all morning working on a chapbook I can’t submit because I misread the guidelines — the press was asking for more than half the stories be unpublished. My chapbook contains mostly published stories.

I’m a victim of my own success, I guess?

Anyway, I was just beginning to revise the introduction for that chapbook (the reasons for which below) when I found out it was all for nought. So I figured I’d go ahead and paste that intro here as my Notebook entry today.

I don’t write many stories about where I live. When I lived in Wisconsin, I rarely set anything up there in the snow, among the dairy cows and cold beer. When I lived in the Middle East, I wrote an essay about Gulf Arab poetry and I set a very short story in Istanbul, but that was it. Now I live in Oregon, and though I’m working on a novel set here, it’s an apocalyptic book that will bear no real resemblance to this lush, cool, wonderful landscape of mossy forests and fir-treed mountains outlined in cold blue rivers.

The stories I write are mostly about where I’m from: Texas.

It feels strange to write that I’m from Texas because, strictly speaking, I’m not. I was born in Oklahoma and spent my formative toddler years up here in Oregon, and I’ve always felt at odds with the state where I grew up. But my family is mostly from Texas and mostly lives there still, and I spent almost my entire childhood and young adulthood there. I completed my entire education in Texas schools, K through 12, bachelors through PhD. I was married in Poetry, Texas. (That’s a real town.) Many of my best friends are from Texas or live there now. And most of my stories are set there, too.

Texas is rich for stories.

There’s the romance of the place, of course — all those Westerns, all those cowboys — but anyone who’s ever driven through the state knows that this is only a part of Texas. We’re talking about a state so huge you could drive all day and never leave the borders. El Paso is closer to Los Angeles than it is to Beaumont; Amarillo is closer to Des Moines than it is to Brownsville. The state of Texas is larger than the nation of France.

In fact, Texas has the proud distinction of having once stood alone as its own sovereign Republic, and a lot of people still argue that thanks to Texas’s size (and sense of self-importance), it behaves almost like a nation unto itself. Dyed-in-the-cowhide Texans whose bumper stickers declare that Texas is “a whole other country” would certainly agree. But those same Texans will also recognize the diversity within their own “other country”: cattle ranchers in the Panhandle have only a little in common with the dairy farmers of East Texas, less in common with the German goat farmers of the Hill Country, even less in common with the oilmen of Southeast Texas and the technology executives of North Texas, and nothing at all in common with the artists, musicians, film-makers, and self-professed “freaks” of Austin. And for all the white-skinned “good Christian bitches” of Dallas and the rancher-tanned white men of West Texas, true Texans today remain as immersed in Mexican culture as they were before Texas became a Republic, as connected to African-American culture as they were before the Civil War, as dependent on farm worker and white-collar immigrants from Asia and Africa and the Middle East as they were when white Americans were the immigrants settling on Spanish and Native lands.

Which is where all these stories come from: not Texas as a homogenous entity but Texas as a varied and lively pool of characters and stories.

When I sat down to imagine this collection, I considered centering everything in Central Texas, where so many of my stories wind up. But I’ve spent a good part of my life driving all over Texas — a two-hour drive from my college to downtown Austin was just a night on the town; when I met my wife it was nothing at all that she lived six hours away in East Texas; going home for Christmas meant a nine-hour drive from grad school in the Panhandle to my parents’ house in the Hill Country — so as I looked at the stories I’d written and the shape of Texas itself, I began to realize that any short collection like this should ramble a bit, take into account the vast, often lonely sprawl of Texas, the variety of its landscape by turns beautiful and depressing, the connections between anyone spanning hundreds of miles yet everyone separated by hours and hours.

Ultimately, that’s what ties all these stories together. They’re all set in Texas, spread from the Panhandle down to the Mexican border, from the Gulf Coast to North Texas and beyond; but they’re also all about separation and the desperate attempts at connection, about the lost and the found, about the huge chasms of emotion or history or culture that separate us even while we all are bound by the simple sufferings of human existence. Past and present, man and woman, Mexican and white, young and old, living and dead — everyone in these stories is calling out across the wide open spaces between each other but no one quite sure what sort of answer they might get. In Texas, you might have to drive for hours and hours just to find the nearest person you could love, or you could drive for hours and hours and never get away from the people out to hurt you. And even if, like me, you drive long enough that you manage to cross a border and leave the state, the state will never quite leave you. You’ll always be from Texas.

The guidelines for this small press ask for a short introduction explaining what ties together all the stories in the chapbook, and since all my stories are set in Texas — not in one region but all over — I wrote this.

I’d explain more, but I hope to have this thing in print one of these days (this chapbook is a somewhat odd length, just shy of 70 pages, and most places seem to want either tiny chapbooks of 20-30 pages or full-blown story collections; I’ve still managed to find a lot of small presses this book would be great for, but finding one that’s currently accepting submissions is trickier), so I won’t bother outlining the book here or pointing out which stories live inside it. Besides, the longer I shop it around, the more likely I am to mess with it, so maybe things will change a bit before it sees print.

Anyway, since the chapbook is all about people in Texas, even though I’ve worked long and hard to leave Texas, I decided to play with that weird inner conflict I’m always working out in my fiction. Hence, this particular intro, or, the rough draft of it, anyway.

Are you from Texas? You’re more than welcome to tell me I’ve got it all wrong. I don’t claim to know everything — or anything — about the state I grew up in. I just write what I see, and what I see changes all the time. Write what you see. I’d love to see it, too.

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