Liz Stephens holds a PhD in creative nonfiction. A winner of the Western Literature Association’s Frederick Manfred Award and a finalist for the Annie Dillard Creative Nonfiction Award, her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Brevity, Western American Literature, and South Dakota Review. Her debut memoir The Days Are Gods was released earlier this month by the University of Nebraska Press.
I have one book by my bed right now. It’s been there a long, long time. If you’ve seen it in person, you know why: it is big enough to count for three. PrairyErth by William Least Heat-Moon is a strange animal: 624 pages on one county in one state in America; Chase County, Kansas. It is the embodiment of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s assertion that culture is best studied by “thick description,” an ethnographic and then literary technique “which explains the context of the practices and discourse within a society.” The book’s subtitle: A Deep Map.
There’s no way to skim the surface of a place or person and pretend any sort of expertise. Thirty or sixty of my students do that every semester in their ethnography papers, bless their hearts. And skimming includes living in one place for years and years without any curiosity. But I can only wish I had the time to apply this kind of thorough, loving, research across my own life consistently, an irony since I spend some of my time doing it to others’ lives. To look at – oh, say, my side table – and recognize its provenance and use at length: I got it on Pico at a second-hand store. The Mexican guy went into the back storage room to find a disk to even out its legs, take its sassy tilt away. It was so sunny. He and I smiled a lot at each other. The car I had to cram it in was the first one I had in Los Angeles, a $500 Chevette I bought from the producer I worked for. Eighteen years later my daughter sets wet water bottle caps in it, on it, around it. I like the ways its legs curve without showing off. I’ve moved it seven times. You get the point.
But I don’t have that kind of time.
I am constantly humbled by the notion that if you stand still a damn minute and listen every person will lay out a life, every inch of the earth will reveal its traverse. And so I read the book to slow down and feel that, after a day in which it seems I could forget every moment, good or bad, all in a hurling rush towards sleep for the next barrage of day. That’s no way to live, but I do it most days.
All right, passages like “External evidence of Thurman is gone now except for a school used as a garage and a derelict farmhouse once the first post office” aren’t for everyone. But maybe these: “the American prairies and plains eat pretension and dreams of aristocracy with slow patience” and “the bartender says ‘I use to make my old lady drink goat’s milk to make her butt better’ and someone says ‘well, now we know that don’t work’” and “’Tell me in a word, what is the essence of life?’ And saith he, ‘borrowed.’”