In high school, I dreamt about leaving–not just Spokane, my conservative hometown, but the Northwest in its entirety. I wanted big, urgent cities elsewhere, most notably NYC. I randomly chose a couple of high-end universities, sent in my applications, and waited for what I assumed would be prompt and eager acceptance.
Lazily, at the urging of a wise school counselor, I also applied to the University of Washington. “A back-up plan,” he called it. I complied, but not without a dramatic eye roll. Why would I go to UW when I could go elsewhere? All writers, I assumed, must eventually end up in New York City. Who had ever heard, I wondered, of a Seattle writer? Even more hilariously, a writer from Spokane? In my mushy teenage brain, a Spokane writer was like a Himalayan dolphin. It didn’t exist. The thin air was contrary to such a creature’s existence.
Of course, I was roundly rejected everywhere but UW. By default, I moved to Seattle. And I loved it. I burrowed into my English literature and creative writing classes, winding to and from cafes and libraries in the romantic dark tunnels of rain. As it turned out, I met quite a few Seattle writers—extraordinarily talented ones like David Shields, Rebecca Brown and Sherman Alexie. The latter, it should be noted, hails originally from Wellpinit, near Spokane (thus smashing the Himalayan dolphin notion entirely). Nonetheless, I remained convinced that New York City was in my destiny.
After graduating from UW, I worked for more than two years at the University Book Store in Seattle and then applied for MFA programs in–yup, once again–New York City and its immediate environs. As a fluke, I also applied to the University of Montana, for no other reason than it had a comparatively easy application process. I did a more thorough job on my essays and applications this time around, despite almost flunking the GREs, but once again I received almost a dozen rejections. Only two programs accepted me: a school in Boston, and the University of Montana. I immediately sent a two-hundred-dollar check to Boston to secure my place there.
A few weeks passed, however, and my certainly about the Boston program wavered. Someone told me that, if they could, they would move back to Missoula in a heartbeat. Various co-workers gushed about the writing of Kevin Canty, Dierdre McNamer and Debra Magpie Earling (all professors at Montana). It occurred to me that I might be more dedicated to my writing in a smaller town than a larger one. But Missoula was only a three-hour drive from Spokane. It would be, I worried, a step backwards. I had always wanted to flee the idiot ghost of my younger self, but here I was, tiptoeing closer to her.
In the midst of my confusion, I complained to a friend that the Montana program sounded ideal, but that I wanted to live in a “big, cosmopolitan” city.
“You do live in a big, cosmopolitan city,” the friend replied. “It doesn’t get cooler than Seattle. Do yourself a favor. Pick the better program.”
Fortunately, I listened.
And, again: I loved it. The MFA program, and Missoula, and being a Montanan. All of it. Although eventually— after almost six years—I left Missoula, too. Following grad school, I suffered a miserable three-year hiatus from writing. My husband, Sam, also a writer, championed a plan to rededicate ourselves to our fiction: we would quit our jobs, leave Missoula, and live at my parent’s remote cabin on Lake Pend Oreille, in the densely forested Idaho Panhandle. We’d stay there until our savings ran out.
The plan worked. I began to write again—slowly at first, sloppily, but then with more and more vigor. I realized that I did not want to return to Missoula. We began to discuss Spokane. Suddenly, it was the only place I wanted to live.
I recently read a quote by Jess Walter, also of Spokane: “ . . . hating where you’re from is just another form of self-loathing.” From my own experience, that’s incredibly true. And it’s not that I’m no longer critical of Spokane, because I still am. But I’m also more appreciative of its goodness, of its general lack of presumption and its quiet, natural beauty. I’m acutely aware, being back here, that it’s as much a part of my writing as it is a part of me. I’m grateful to it—not only for my past here, but also for my present, and for my future.
I’m pregnant now with my second child. I live in a cozy home with my two favorite people: my husband, Sam, and our toddler, Henry. My parents, brother, sister and grandma live only a few blocks away. The town is mostly cheerful and sunny, the parks rambling and filled with children. My success in writing—first with having short stories placed in literary journals, then with finally winning a fiction prize for my short story collection and seeing it emerge in print— have all occurred here. Living in Spokane again has taught me to ease up on myself, and on my hometown, and to see, for once, some intrinsic worth in both parties.
I still haven’t been to New York City. I really want to go. Part of me still thinks that I should get there soon, at least to visit, or else my writing will suffer for it.
But another part of me, a part of myself that I like and trust—the Himalayan dolphin part of me—is just happy to be back home.
Sharma Shields is the author of the short story collection Favorite Monster, winner of the Autumn House Fiction Contest. Seattle’s alternative weekly The Stranger says the collection is “packed with cyclopses and werewolves and the occasional serial killer or two. But before that turns you off, you should consider the names at the bottom of the glowing blurbs on the back of the book: J. Robert Lennon and Stewart O’Nan. Suck on that, lit-snob.” A former bookseller at Auntie’s and University Book Store, Shields’ short fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review, Iowa Review, Fugue, Sonora Review and several other literary journals. She has received numerous awards for her writing, including the Tim McGinnis Award for Humor, a Grant for Artist Projects from Artist Trust and the A.B. Guthrie Award for Outstanding Prose. Check out her events schedule here.