Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
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Why I Do Write About Martha's Vineyard

I washed ashore 21 years ago, desperate for a break from urban living, planning to work on the novel I'd been thwacking at sporadically for several years. What I actually wrote was poetry. Poetry is perfect for capturing the images and impressions that flash by when you're in a whole new country. I write my best poetry when I'm falling in love, or trying to talk myself out of falling in love, and against my will I was falling in love with the Vineyard.

At Wintertide Coffeehouse -- it was at the youth hostel that year, my second winter on the Island -- I read "Winter Rental," my six-sonnet sequence about moving twice a year. A woman came up to me afterward. She and her kids moved twice a year, she told me. She recognized her story in my poems, and she thanked me for writing them. Every time I read "Winter Rental," listeners told me their stories, about moving into tents or in with relatives or off-island for the summer. That's one reason I write about the Vineyard.

It took about eight years before my Vineyard experiences had composted enough to sustain a short story. Not that I hadn't been trying all that time, but the characters didn't come to life; the soil they were rooted in was too thin. During those years I was writing about the Vineyard, though, first as a theater reviewer then as editor of the Calendar and Community sections of the Martha's Vineyard Times. Talk about crash courses! Not only did I learn to write with phones ringing off the hook, reporters asking how to spell so-and-so's name, and production screaming for the page 3 story, I learned to write with readers eagerly waiting for me to screw up.

As a writer I strive toward being able to tell the emperor he's walking down the street buck nekkid, and to do it in such a way that he doesn't order me decapitated on the spot. Writing for the Times, I learned to test my perceptions, clarify my thoughts, and eschew the verbal razzle-dazzle that merely scores points off some poor mortal who deserves better (and may defer revenge to a later date). If you want to write about the Vineyard, these skills come in handy.

Bill Clinton first vacationed on the Vineyard in August 1993. I never met the man, but his visit changed my life. About 95 percent of the national and regional press corps, so it seemed, came to cover the Clintons -- but the Clintons spent most of their time holed up near South Beach. So the media swarmed all over the place gathering local color and writing about the Vineyard. They often got it wrong; at best they got it shallow. They didn't know where to look, what questions to ask, or how to put it together. If the media couldn't create a Martha's Vineyard I recognized, why should I trust what they say about Baghdad or Beirut?

That's another reason I write about Martha's Vineyard. The off-islanders get it wrong and the occasional visitors get it shallow. The Vineyard may look simple from the outside, but the longer you live here, the more complex it gets. I still don't know diddly but I've been here long enough to know what I don't know. And if I leave something out, someone's sure to tell me.

In the long winter lull between Clinton Visit I and Clinton Visit II, I read a article about writer Grace Paley. "Paley's stories are local, in the wisest sense," it said. "If you ask her whether she would write about what's going on in South Africa, she says no. A character might comment on the situation, she adds, but 'if your feet aren't in the mud of a place, you'd better watch where your mouth is.'"

This immediately became my mantra. The title of my recently finished (and still unsold) first novel, which -- you guessed it -- is about Martha's Vineyard, is The Mud of the Place. Paley's warning is its epigraph.

The Martha's Vineyard you'll visit in The Mud of the Place, or in any other fiction about the Island, is not the same Vineyard whose dirt roads you drive on, whose grocery stores you shop in, whose town officials you cuss lustily when they do something dumb. What novelists do is create alternate-reality Martha's Vineyards. In some of these Vineyards, the scenery is very Vineyard, but mysterious corpses turn up with a regularity that would shock most of my neighbors. In mine, you'll find that a few familiar buildings have been replaced by some less familiar -- and don't go looking for anyone you know on this Martha's Vineyard: they aren't there.

Writing about the Vineyard is like writing poetry in traditional forms: it limits your freedom in some ways, but it also sharpens your perceptions and challenges your command of the language. It's like reviewing a play when your number's in the phone book and anyone who takes issue with your interpretation can find you PDQ. Theater demands courage of the actors; why not of the reviewer?

Why do I write about Martha's Vineyard? Because if we whose feet are in the mud of this place don't write about it, who will?

 

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