When I was first starting to write fiction, I read a piece by William Styron about the difficulties of beginning a story. What you needed most, he said, was a strong sense of place. Something that would ground you through all the uncertainties that were sure to follow. You might not know what, but you had to know where.
I was encouraged, because I had such a place in mind: Northern Michigan. Not the Upper Peninsula, but the northern reach of the lower peninsula. Look at your right palm, fingers together, thumb extended. In that map of Michigan, the place where I was most connected would run from the tip of your little finger down to the first knuckle. Or, more conventionally, west of Traverse City, along Lake Michigan’s shore from the town of Northport south to Frankfort.
My father fell in love with that part of Michigan as a teenager, so I suppose the connection I feel is in my blood (though I grew up in the lower part of the state, not far from Ann Arbor). I’m not alone. Jim Harrison lived there for years. Once, in a bar, I inquired of him whether he would like to pass a bottle of ketchup my way. And, indeed, he did.
One summer when I was visiting the area, a friend invited me to stay. I’d already spent six weeks in his guest room, gathering material. “Your book’s all about Northern Michigan,” he said. “Why not just stay here?”
I wanted to, but I couldn’t. I had to finish the book. And I knew with certainty that the only place I could finish it was here, in the Northwest.
I was living in Seattle at the time. The path toward Wire to Wire had begun one evening when I stepped into the University of Washington’s Parrington Hall and met Jack Cady. Jack was known at the time for his novel, The Jonah Watch; he later taught at Pacific Lutheran University. I had no idea what was ahead of me when I began writing, but Jack did, and he gave me strength and confidence and most of all stubbornness—and then he sent me off into the woods.
But not alone. He shared my work with the poet Robert Wrigley at the University of Idaho, making sure I got the kind of encouragement I would need early in the process. The story I wrote in Jack’s class won a contest judged by writers Shawn Wong and Charles Johnson. That led me to the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference.
The writers’ groups I joined as a result have produced at least four novels and probably more. And they kept me going. I was publishing nothing, going down dead ends, filling paper with mistakes. How could I do all that alone, in Northern Michigan? I couldn’t.
In Portland, I found an equally strong writing culture. Most importantly, I found the teachers who would take me the rest of the way: Joanna Rose and Stevan Allred, who teach at the Pinewood Table.
When I walked into Parrington Hall that night and met Jack Cady, he knew I was stepping into a wilderness. He knew making it through might take a long time—and it did—but he also knew these Northwest woods are full of people who can help. When I stepped into Joanna and Stevan’s class, my journey changed for a second time. They showed me the way. And it wasn’t just Stevan and Joanna, but the other writers who sat around the Pinewood Table. There’d be no book without them. And sure, a book is just a book. But it’s also my life. It’s everything I’ve thrown myself at. It exists because the Northwest supports writers like no other place I know, from start to finish.
I’ve left out a lot of people in this short summary. Certainly I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Tin House and others. I’m just as certain there are stories like this all across the Northwest—with different names and different teachers but the same storyline: individual determination and a community of support.
And to be fair, Northern Michigan’s caught up. They now have the Traverse City National Writers Series, and Western Michigan is a hotbed of great writing, with Jaimy Gordon and Bonnie Jo Campbell and others.
Styron said you have to start with a sense of place. Here’s how that translates for me: Write about what you believe in. And live in a place that believes in writers. For me, that’s the Pacific Northwest.
Originally from Michigan, Scott Sparling lives outside Portland, OR, with his wife and son. Wire to Wire is his first novel. We like his recent blog post about a Playboy review. Watch a trailer for Wire to Wire here, and go see Sparling at an indie store near you:
June 16 @ Third Street Books
334 NE Third Street, McMinnville, OR
June 21 @ Elliot Bay Bookstore
1521 Tenth Ave., Seattle, WA
June 22 @ Third Place Books
17171 Bothell Way NE, Lake Forest Park, WA
June 23 @ Village Books
1200 11th St., Bellingham, W
June 30 @ Powell’s Books
1005 W. Burnside, Portland, OR