Of all the pieces in Measuring Time & Other Stories (out this fall from Wiseblood Books), this is the only story not set in the Midwest. Rather, it is set in Portland, Oregon, where my wife and I lived for three years. This is also the story in the collection that most explicitly involves religious faith, and the lack thereof.
I wrote the first draft in September 2008 in preparation for a fiction workshop I was taking in my doctoral program. In skimming over that first draft this morning, I saw that all the basic elements of the story were present at that early stage. One seemingly minute difference that caught my eye was the name of the protagonist. Originally, I had named her Marie, a perfectly acceptable name.
Later on, I changed her name to Mara, which in the Hebrew means “bitter” or “sorrow,” both of which aptly describe her character. An irreligious person, she’s upset by her brother’s conversion to Christianity and his marriage to a woman she thinks is beneath him. It’s one of the few times I’ve selected a character name based upon its meaning. (In the book of Ruth, Naomi changes her name to Mara to reflect her grief over the death of her sons and husband.)
Throughout the process of drafting, revising, and editing, I drew upon my familiarity with the city, and with the area of southeast Portland where I spent most of my time. Previously, when I finished my MFA at Minnesota State University Moorhead, and my thesis committee learned that I was moving to Portland, they offered an observation: once I moved away from the Midwest, my writing about that region would become easier and become clearer. Half a continent away in Portland, I found that they were correct.
And so later, once my wife and I left the Pacific Northwest and moved to South Dakota so I could attend the University of South Dakota, I found that I could write about Portland with greater ease and clarity. Writing at my desk in Yankton, I could transport myself to southeast Portland, to Hawthorne Boulevard. Finally, that’s still one of the draws for me as a writer: the way I can write about characters in a location that I loved and knew well. It’s my version of travel writing.