Some say writers are made by place: where they grew up and lived, the roads they walked, or the alleys of tenement apartments through which they ran. Others, that writers aren't made at all, but make themselves, somehow, through the sweat and crafting of years. I don't know. I can't imagine Richard Wright as Richard Wright without his growing up in Mississippi, or Baldwin without Harlem or his Paris. Did Faulkner discover Yoknapatawpha, or did it discover him? Remove O'Connor from Georgia and what stories would we have? Or say Hemingway never went to war. Say there never was a war.
But there was. And he went.
I write stories, novellas, and novels, and I wonder what makes a writer. Kurt Vonnegut described writers as loping around like gut-shot bears. I like that. Barry Hannah has said writers observe everything. That they stare, like cows. Many writers have talked of the importance of place in their work and in their lives. The land they dwelt in ends up dwelling, somehow, unavoidably and deeply, in them as well. The soul of a writer absorbs it all, even if unconsciously.
Maybe it's simple as our childhoods: those temporary Edens, such as they were, the good and the terrible, that we once knew and had to leave, but that never have fully left us. We carry them, and then are driven to write either toward or away from what they were and who we are.
You can't go home again, wrote Thomas Wolfe. Then for the rest of his career all he did was write about home. American literature itself rises and falls on the simple story of the search for a home. Twain's Huck Finn, Hawthorne's Dimmsdale and Hester, Melville's Ishmael, Hemingway's Nick Adams and Jake Barnes, Fitzgerald's Gatsby, back to the pilgrims themselves coming ashore encountering myth as reality.
One of the most profound of our epics in Western literature reduces itself to a very elemental story: A man named Odysseus, after twenty years at war, just wants to get home. Nostos, the Greeks called it. Return. It's where we get our word nostalgia: the longing to return to a familiar wound.
Wounds, like brands, are what make us. And it is out of such wounds that many of this country's best stories have been written.