When Melanie Hoffert left her hometown on the North Dakota prairie, she did so carrying the secret that she was gay. Years later, she returned to make peace with the big sky and long horizon her birth. “We leave, but we never truly leave,” she writes in her new memoir, Prairie Silence. “Our families are rooted in the community like the trees are rooted in the earth.” Prairie Silence is just out from Beacon Press; look for a review of the book in the May/June 2013 issue of Orion.
Since publishing Prairie Silence, I have had countless people ask what it was that made me sit down to write a book. I’ve told them that, well, I never sat down to write a book. That would have been a lovely thing to do, but I had no idea how to do it. All I could do, from day to day, year to year, was to follow my love of creation—and as I did so, I wrote from the fragments of my life that often seemed to be stuck in the ether like slivers, waiting to be extracted and examined. These fragments contained images, details, unresolved questions, and memories. And as I wrote from these fragments, I found myself returning, again and again, to a world accessible only by gravel roads. Though I didn’t realize it until perhaps just this exact moment, sitting in a city, listening to a plane pass, I was writing my way back to the North Dakota prairie. I was writing my way home.
I grew up on a farm, surrounded by shelterbelts, fields, barns, small towns, and people who didn’t change. I don’t mean “change” in terms of personal evolution; I mean that the people who surrounded me as a toddler were, by and large, the same people who surrounded me when I graduated from high school. I learned, from my earliest years, that community meant something that was deep, continuous, forever.
When I left the prairie after high school, I did so carrying the secret that I am gay. And while I eventually resolved this secret in the life I created for myself in the city, as soon as I returned home, I could no longer speak. I had learned to hide my identity with the people who were supposed to know me best.
As I wrote about this silence, the land showed up—not in a scene, not as a setting, but as a character. I began to see how my silence mirrored the silences within the people I grew up around, and then I realized that our collective silences reflected, on a metaphorical level, the quiet prairie landscape. I realized, through writing, that I was connected to my home in a way that went beyond simple affiliation.
After living in a city for years, I began to crave the sense of community that I knew as a kid. The more I wrote, the more I began to identify and name the distance I had put between me and my home due to my fear.
Meanwhile, my hometown was changing. When I was growing up, there was a lumber yard, two grocery stores, two cafés, and a general store. But over the years these businesses closed, and the town’s activity shifted to the outskirts, and then to larger, nearby towns. Somehow, it seemed to me, the town’s soul was leaving. And, of course, I had left, too.
To explore the themes coming up in my writing, I decided to return to my family’s farm for a month. This was the most time I had spent at home since childhood. While there, I worked on the farm with my dad; and in between the busy days of harvest, I visited small towns, where I laid my palms on the brittle wood of abandoned businesses. As I wrote, I began to better understand that I need this part of the world in order to feel nourished and centered, to feel rooted and whole. I also started to resolve, on some level, my silence.
Today, as I look at the slivers of writing that eventually came together to birth a book, I understand that our beginnings somehow imprint upon us. These imprints are intricate, complex, and sometimes undetectable until we start to write. And sometimes, in order to resolve some of our biggest questions—like how an unrelenting silence can keep us from the people and places we love—we must return to our beginnings. At least I did.
Melanie Hoffert grew up on a farm near Wyndmere, North Dakota, where she spent her childhood meandering gravel roads and listening to farmers at church potlucks. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, where she received the Outstanding Creative Nonfiction Thesis Award. Prairie Silence is her first book.