In Thomas Wolfe’s highly acclaimed novel You Can’t Go Home Again, the protagonist George Webber discovers, during his life journey, that you can’t return to what was once viewed as hearth and home, in the sense of how you molded it within your heart and mind; nor can you return to certain value systems that invariably undergo change in our ever-evolving world.
You Can’t Go Home Again. Five simple words in a straightforward sentence that carries much weight – and for some people a life sentence. Has it been this way for you? Can you go home again, both as a person and/or a writer?
For me, it’s easier to go home a little bit.
Most of my family has passed away, and I’ve lost contact with the cousins and extended family and childhood friends because I don’t live near my old homestead. The ones who stayed in the general area perhaps made peace with their childhoods, or clung due to some fear of branching out. I fled at seventeen to see the world, and have been pretty much doing that since.
Yet in stories and novels, I often use snippets of the old life to create a scene, or some character, or plot tension. It’s pretty hard to shake off all our ghosts from the past. Some come out only on Halloween or in mean winter weather, while other placid ghosts may put in an appearance more frequently.
On a scale of one to ten (10 being the best) I would rate myself a 2 in these circumstances. I think it’s really hard to go home.
When on the rare occasions I’ve driven around the town where I grew up (usually with my mother in tow, the two of us calling it Memory Lane). When we drive around Memory Lane and I see the old tennis courts, my school, our old house, the window to my bedroom — the white birch my dad planted outside that window because I so longed to have a tree in view — well, frankly, I don’t do that well. I get a lump in my throat. I try not to focus on our family laughing and joking piled around the dining table on weekends, having sumptuous meals cooked by my mom. Or the tricks my brother and his friends played on me, such as rigging up a bucket of water, over the front to door, to be released when my unsuspecting date rang the doorbell.
That’s the kind of life I had. Crazy, unreliable, but generally eventful.
Must a writer come from some sort of disturbed background in order to be successful at making stories come alive? Probably.
It seems the really damaged early lives push into nonfiction and memoir to exorcise their personal demons. I have a deadly fear of memoir, though my early years weren’t particularly “disturbed,” but more characteristic of an eccentric and non-conformist upbringing. We had all the pieces in place, everything nice and shiny, but they seemed to be at a tilt.
I know people who can breeze through their old neighborhoods and even manage to enjoy eating at some 24-hour diner they went to after their prom. I wish I could be all breezy about that, too. I wish I didn’t spend my life running away, because now I’m older and the old friends don’t want me. They stayed behind and thus regard me as some type of weird person — a writer, at that.
Wolfe, I hypothesize, may have personally experienced this syndrome — that once you are out of your geography, you become an outsider. Which is kind of sad. Whether you live in a place for five years or fifty, you still manage to connect and put down roots. I had wanted to connect with my old school chums, but they seemed to regard me as a different species who’d wandered into their private pond.
It’s a tough world out there. Wolfe sure knew it and played it out in his book, over two continents and spanning decades. We are small when pitted against the world’s larger scheme, he seemed to be saying in his writing.
I believe we need our friends and, if we have one, our family. A lot of them don’t need us, though, and therein lies the dilemma.
Susan Tepper is the author of four published books of fiction and a chapbook of poetry. Her current title, The Merrill Diaries, (Pure Slush Books, 2013) is a novel in stories. Tepper has been nominated 9 times for the Pushcart, and one time for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. She is also a named-finalist in story/South Million Writers Award for 2014. FIZZ, her reading series at KGB Bar in NYC, has been sporadically ongoing for six or seven years now. Tepper writes the author/books Interview series UNCOV/rd at Flash Fiction Chronicles. You can find her online at susantepper.com.