What does it mean to be “from” somewhere? And how does that influence a person’s writing style and content?
These are the sorts of questions David Giffels has been pondering in his Chautauqua workshop this week, and indeed, for much of his professional career.
“I have spent a significant amount of my writing life writing about not just what it means to be from Akron, Ohio, but what it means to be a writer from the Rust Belt,” said Giffels, an author, journalist, educator and Week One prose writer-in-residence for the Chautauqua Writers’ Center. “To be a writer from the Rust Belt means that your topic is not glamorous; it’s about writing about a place that most people wouldn’t think of as fodder for literature.”
And though he doesn’t consider the Rust Belt to be a glittering jewel, Giffels said that there are still lessons to be learned from the region: Namely, how to deal with hard times, how to deal with being overlooked and anonymous — in addition to the public perception of being merely “flyover country.”
At 12:30 p.m. EDT Friday, July 3, on the Virtual Porch, Giffels will give a virtual Chautauqua Literary Arts Brown Bag lecture on coming to terms with place and its intersections with identity and the self, titled “‘No Poor, Indifferent Place’: Why and How We Write About Home.”
“I love writing about underdog stories, stories of endurance through difficulty — which is really the story that the Rust Belt region has to tell,” he said. “So I’m going to talk about not just what it means to write about a place like that, but also what it means to write about topics that aren’t the most immediately expected topics.”
Giffels, whose latest book, Barnstorming Ohio: To Understand America, melds Ohioan memoir, journalism and political commentary, grew up in Akron, Ohio, with the unlikely dream of becoming a writer.
“Wanting to be a writer is like saying you want to learn how to be invisible,” he said. “It’s a pursuit that doesn’t immediately attach itself to a practical application.”
By the time Giffels finished college with both a dual major in journalism and English, as well as a Master’s in creative writing, he said he still “didn’t know how to manifest it all.”
“I stumbled into newspaper journalism, and that’s how I got started,” he said. “I started writing for newspapers at the beginning of my career, and since then it’s evolved into writing books for the last 10 to 15 years.”
Giffels said that the thing he’s come to love the most about writing is also the thing that’s most vexing.
“You finish a day feeling however you feel about the work you’ve done, either really good or really bad, and you get a chance the next day to make it better,” he said. “Nothing is ever going to be perfection, but the craft of writing itself allows you to try to get close.”
When teaching students about the joys of writing, Giffels said “it’s like when you go to a party, you leave 10 minutes later and think of the witty line that you wish you had said there, in the moment.”
“Writing allows you to do that. It allows you to come back the next day and say it the way you wish you’d said it the day before,” he said. “That drives me. Every time I come back to my desk, I say, ‘Today’s my chance to get it closer to how I want it to be.’”