Chapter 65: A Place on Earth
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
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There is no species of writer quite so restless as a young journalist. A first job is often seen as a stepping stone to the next job which is a stepping stone to the next. Much as it’s understood that you “need to put in your time,” that time feels as if it’s racing ahead, with you desperate to catch up: What if I’m not in the big leagues by 30? What is to become of me?
It is often the case that you came to that job from someplace else, to a newspaper in a town you cannot wait to leave. At least that is how it worked for decades – it did for me and many of my friends – until the collapse of local journalism stripped so many communities of their newspapers, and those remaining newspapers of their staff. Still, local journalism, beleaguered as it is, endures, which means young journalists still show up to cover the town council, school board, high school sports, and life as it’s defined and lived in places far different from where they came.
Then, clips in hand, you leave, never looking back and – here I speak from personal experience – perhaps never understanding what you might well have missed. If not home for you, then home for others and all that comes with it.
Graig Graziosi was very much that eager and restless young journalist, except with one essential difference: he had grown up in the town he covered. Though he had left twice, traveled far and struggled to find his place in the world and the work he could do, he came home and, in time, became a reporter at his hometown paper, The Youngstown Vindicator.
Youngstown, Ohio ranks among the nation’s more benighted cities: once a boom town its fortunes have fallen dramatically since the 1970s, and as they did many people left Youngstown, so many that when Graig was growing up, it was understood that staying was not much of an option.
“We are frequently told to leave. Adults tell kids that there is no future here and that the best thing to do is to get a good education and run for your life. When we weren’t being told to leave, we were subjected to stories from our elders about the old days, before the city broke. As we age and mature in this part of the country, it is easy to feel less like we’re on a journey and more like we’re perpetually stuck on the tarmac. We know there’s a better life out there, if only we could take off.”
Graig wrote this in a story we published last year that sadly captured so much about what it means to live, work, and feel a bond with Youngstown – “When My Newspaper Died,” an account of the last days of the paper readers called the Vindy.
He continued: “For as much as we’re told to leave, however, so many of us don’t. For some it’s simply a lack of opportunity, but for many others it’s a conscious choice. After all, the ones who tell us to leave are the ones who’ve stayed. To leave means to say goodbye to family and friends and familiarity. So many stay, and once we’ve been stuck for a while, we start to take pride in our situation. We reason: ‘I’m tougher for having had to deal with this. I have more grit than others.’ Our birthplace is a core part of our identity, and we start rationalizing all the reasons to stay.”
When The Vindicator died in August of 2019, Graig did leave. By any objective measure he landed well – he moved to be with his girlfriend to Washington D.C. and writes regularly for The Independent – the big time, covering news and American politics for a major British daily.
And yet, almost three years later, good as work is, there is something missing, a quality captured in the title of Wendell Berry’s great novel: “A Place on Earth.”
I got in touch with Graig to ask how things were going. His answer surprised me, as much as it moved me.
“One thing I've been struggling with since having left Youngstown is adjusting to reporting without place,” he wrote. “So much of my previous work — definitely in Youngstown but also in Arizona — was tied to place. I was a city reporter at both papers. Finding stories was easy because it just required me to be a member of my community. Now that I do national reporting on a range of subjects I've found that I've been missing those interactions with community members. I had good relationships with the people I went back to time and again for stories. I could see the impact a story had when I'd receive calls or emails afterwards. I remember I did a story about a local barber who'd been struggling to keep a 100-year-old barber shop open. I went there as a kid with my grandpa, and it was still going when I was in my 30's. So I wrote the story and afterwards he was given a plaque by the state celebrating the shop and his old girlfriend got back in touch with him after seeing the story. They went on a date.
“I don't have that anymore. In some ways I've ‘moved up’ in the journalism world, but in other ways I feel like I've lost something special by no longer being able to report on my immediate community. It’s so weird that with the whole wide world out there so many of us get pulled back home with our writing.”
There is, of course, a long and storied history in writers returning, time and again, to home – Joyce’s Dublin, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. It is a call captured well by another writer drawn to place, Isak Dinensen and Africa: “It is impossible that a town will not play a part in your life, it does not even make much difference whether you have good or bad things to say of it, it draws your mind to it, by a mental law of gravitation.”
Home can be a muse, as Natasha wrote in last week’s newsletter about New York. It can be a place that perplexes you, which makes you keep coming back hoping to sort things out. Home, or place if you like, is a story and like all stories, what brings it alive for people who might never go there, is how a writer sees that place and the people who live there. When done right – meaning an investment in a town and seeing it as more than a stop on the way to someplace presumably better – it comes with a certain responsibility to get the place right.
“Writing about my hometown was a lot like officiating my little sister's wedding,” Graig wrote; “it was an honor to do but extremely terrifying. If I fumbled my duties, my audience would have been my family and friends, and I'd have blemished something exceptionally special to the people I care about. Youngstown has been through a lot, but the city is more than its struggles. It's hard when telling a story about getting laid off to not fall back on the stereotypes about Youngstown — the steel mills closing, the GM plant closing, etc. I wanted to make sure in that story, as I looked back at my time at the Vindy, that people saw the heart of the city — its people — were still there and worthy of being documented, even if it wasn't by me at the Vindy.”
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