A Small Town Writer’s Challenge

I don’t know if he meant to, but my friend Matthew Lee Anderson, in the same kind of way you hear on the local nightly news, just said in an ultrasmooth voice, “Now over to you, Michael.”

In his ever-so-insightful way, Matt called attention to a series of pieces from his Mere Orthodoxy collaborator Jake Meador on the value of small towns, particularly in the context of 21st century Christianity and conservatism. All these pieces — and this response from Rod Dreher —  deserve your attention. But this passage from Matt’s latest is especially pertinent for me:

The economic point here is a crucial one, as it goes much deeper than simply having a job that pays bills.  Our work entangles us in the world in our entirety, not in part, if we are to do it well.  Our work is a role, yes, but it is a role that we assume without fragmenting ourselves.  We invest ourselves in our work; our work pervades the entirety of our lives, forming our desires and establishing a scope for our interests.  The tension of living in a place and working elsewhere is not simply one of not having to leave our front doors in order to get to the office and so bumping elbows with our neighbors on the way.  Rather, it is a question about where our investments are and what it means to be in a place when such a fundamental mode of our existence takes all our concerns elsewhere.  We can deflate the “economy” so that it is only a transaction of money in exchange for some sort of service; but that may be to enter into a mode of working that lies at the heart of the alienation that many people feel in their lives, to give ourselves over to the very problem that the emphasis on place is meant to address.

Let me put the point differently, then:  if we all need small towns, then we need small town writers whose fundamental interests and concerns are those which describe and recount their places in ways that the rest of us can learn from.  It is not enough to hand out Wendell Berry and consider the work of describing the interests of small-town life done, though Rod Dreher’s Little Way does this too, it seems.  If there is something distinctively good there, some sort of formation that can occur anywhere but which might be especially concentrated in the way of life that is wholly integrated into a small community, then we need writers willing to forgo the temptations of universalism that the internet presents and take up their pen and describe the granular, frequently petty and occasionally heroic forms of life that make small-town life uniquely indispensable.  It may take a form of writing that is as parochially concerned as the people it represents.  But if it is the case that the true wisdom is found within the limiting, narrow particulars of a small-town life, it is just within such parochialism that we will see the world properly.

With our impending move to Greeneville, Tennessee, as I take an editing job with the local newspaper, I feel like my name is somewhere in the metadata of that post. But Matt’s right: if there really is something philosophically or even theologically specific about how small towns better inform us of our own anthropology, it will take the detail-hungry eyes of a writer (or anyone of the creative class) to draw it out and package it for the rest of us. To be a bit narcissistic for a moment, I think I have what it takes to do that; I guess we’ll see.

Matt’s points about being in a place without really being in a place are spot on as well. And this isn’t exclusive to those in small towns. With the sirens of immersive technology and social media singing their songs, checking out of our physical space while we check in on Foursquare is a temptation for all of us. If you want proof of the struggle, observe any parent who has kids still in the home and a smartphone.

At the risk of getting too hung up on myself, working at a local newspaper — the hub of many small communities — sets one up perfectly for the kind observation and communication Matt is speaking of here. In his piece, Rod calls attention to the fact that even though he’s moved back to his hometown, his day job puts him firmly in the digital sphere for most of his day, not in this own town.

I live online, for the most part. It’s where I work, and where my head is. I probably have more in common in that way with you, reader, than I do with any random person in my own town. Isn’t that strange? It is exacerbated by my having become far more introverted in recent years, and with the sheer emotional exhaustion of events of the past three years, a time in which I a) quit my job, left my beloved church, and moved my family halfway across the country; b) lived through my sister’s struggle with cancer, and death; c) experienced a sudden collapse of the job I was hired to do, followed by a year of extreme uncertainty about my employment future; d) moved my family once again halfway across the country, this time to a hometown I’d left under painful circumstances almost 30 years earlier; and e) wrote a memoir about my sister’s death and our family’s life, in six months.

To be fair to Rod, I don’t see much of a way around this for someone who’s writing for national publication based in Washington, D.C., while blogging to people literally around the world.

The trick to what Matt talks about in his piece is taking things on the “parochial” level and writing about them in such a way that folks who can’t even pin that particular small community on a map will be able to gain something. But this is also the rub with almost any kind of writing: to take the local or personal and universalize it. To repeat myself: I think  (at least I hope) I can at least attempt to do this once we get on the ground in Greeneville. The answer lies in the doing, or at least the attempt of doing. If nothing else, the circumstances Julie, our boys, and I are walking into sets us up perfectly for this. We will not just live in this community; we will be part of the community, of the economy, as Matt puts it.

This whole conversation is moot depending on the answer to the question Matt poses at the end of this piece. With so much hullabaloo in evangelical circles the last few months about cities vs. small communities, I think this question is the perfect one to ask: “Otherwise, I may be left wondering whether we really need small towns after all, or whether they too are simply one more place of ambivalence equivalent to all the rest.”

My instinct tells me, for all their faults and temptations, there is something unique about small towns that conserves important parts of our culture and reminds us of our own anthropology. But I think in this next phase of our journey, I can also look at Matt’s wondering open-minded, with an eye toward spotting what does or doesn’t make small town life uniquely edifying.

What do you think? Are small towns uniquely important? Why or why not?


7 thoughts on “A Small Town Writer’s Challenge

  1. I definitely think that small towns are important. There are lots of reasons for that in my mind (however biased it may be since I’m originally from a tiny little community). But the two main ones that come to mind are the sense of community and the unique culture. There’s something really powerful about a small town’s sense of community. The whole concept of everyone knowing everyone else, of the neighbour feeling between people who are blocks apart, if not separated by miles of farm land or forest. It’s that sense of community that sees my neighbour drive his lawn mower across the road to help my father get our lawn cut faster. While you might get that in city neighbourhoods, it’s something I have yet to find. And I’ve been living in a large city for over 5 years. And then there’s the culture. In Alberta at least, it doesn’t matter how close communities are situated to each other, but their cultures are completely different, their strengths and weaknesses different, their outlook on life different, which I find beautiful – to have such diversity between towns.

    I think if we didn’t have small towns, hamlets, villages, or even smaller cities, we would begin losing the “let’s take care of each other” attitude that’s strongest in those small, tight knit communities. Small communities act like they are all in it together. And to me, that in itself is uniquely important.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Melissa. Here’s another question for you: why do you think it is that small communities foster the two characteristics you pointed out? And do you think they can develop in big cities at all? Also, I’m just curious as to how you got to this blog; I don’t think we know each other. Thanks!

      1. I guess I’m not really sure why it happens in smaller communities. Maybe its because of the relationship people have with each other – everyone knows everyone else and it’s harder to be indifferent to people you know. I certainly think cities can develop the same characteristics, but maybe not as a whole, more so by neighborhoods.

        We don’t know each other. I was looking through Word Press for the tags rural and small towns etc, and stumbled across your blog.

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