Interior room with a table. A tan hat is next to a yellow book on the table, and a platter of green olives and green vegetables. A poster above the table reads I Drink Wine.

I did it. I made the decision to make Maine my permanent home. Decisions are agonizing, in my experience, but once reached, can be so liberating and energizing. This October, I made the decision to commit to Maine. The Pine Tree State no longer represents just a peaceful writing retreat and a seasonal refuge from climate change in Florida, where I had been teaching ESOL. (Not to mention that my school in St. Petersburg shut down in December 2021.) Maine has truly become home. (I can tell, because I’m feeling deeply homesick on this short trip back to Florida to pack up loose ends.)

I’m going to jump both feet first into the snowbanks, learn to co-exist with the vicious black flies in May and continue putting down roots in my little rural town of Millinocket (pop. 4,127.) And, wouldn’t you know it, the New York Times recently pulled us out of obscurity by naming our town (www.millinocket.org) as one of the top 52 places in the world to visit in 2024–mainly, to view the full eclipse of the sun in April. Come on up and see us!

Most importantly, I don’t feel invisible in my little town. I’m that woman in the funny hat who walks everywhere and re-started a farmers’ and artisans’ market. Persuaded the Amish farmers to drive an hour to sell their corn and tomatoes and grass-fed beef. (“Oh yes, she also writes and sometimes reads her stuff at public open mic events.”)

Lately, I’ve met a few like-minded politically liberal (and extremely witty) women and we’re scheming to start a community theater group as well as a free writing workshop at the library. There’s nothing like being at the beginning of something good…

Meanwhile here I am, in Saint Petersburg in January 2024, wrapping up my past life. Saying goodbye to friends and former teaching colleagues, attempting with some success to hit every downtown coffee shop and even the occasional Irish bar or Turkish café. I want to be satiated to the point of future revulsion (since there is a severe lack of such delights in Millinocket at the present time.) My own little Clockwork Orange experiment.

The question people in St. Petersburg keep asking: Won’t you miss our weather? It’s so cold up there in Maine!

No! I say. I won’t miss the unbearable heat in Florida from May through October!

(That’s not the right answer.) Or the hurricanes. Or the politics.

But seriously, as an ex-New Yorker who went to summer camp in New Hampshire, the climate of Maine suits me perfectly. In the winter, I can curl up on my window seat with blueberry tea or hot cocoa and read as I watch the snow fall; in spring, summer and fall I’m out walking and hearing crickets. No air conditioner needed: just small detachable window screens.  My town is surrounded by boreal forest—just stepping out my door is akin to Japanese forest-bathing. Do I miss coffee shops and Thai food and indie movie houses?  Yes, but they’re out there, an hour’s drive away in Orono or Bangor. Meanwhile, there’s virtually nothing to distract me from the hard, lonely work of writing. (And anyway, I probably stream a movie 5 nights a week.) My biggest weekly treat is the walk with my friend Carolyn and one of her two splendid blue-eyed Siberian Huskies.

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As usual when traveling, I lugged a stack of my most recent partially-read magazines to the airport to catch up on (Harper’s, The Atlantic, the New Yorker).  I was delighted to discover an essay by William Maxwell, expressing his feelings about one of my favorite genres, the autobiographical novel. He bypassed that trite question: The novel—thriving or on life-support?  He just assumes his reader will share his interest in what subtle differences makes one novelistic genre distinct from another; it’s the kind of burrowing down into a subject that I relish and hope will improve my own craft. So much of the time one just staggers along in a kind of mental twilight; any light shed on the nature and wellsprings of creativity is so welcome.

I have always revered the novel. For me, especially in small-town Maine, blessed with a local library that always has an up-to-date New Fiction shelf (Strout, Talty, Ford, Patchett, Kuang), novels are my absolutely essential link to the wider world. Even on the coldest day in December or January, I can put on my Merrell hiking boots, encased in their stretchy metal-studded boot-bras, and tread carefully over the icy road to the paradise of the warm and welcoming library across the road, returning home with treasures every time. (A recent check-out slip noting my borrowed book’s renewal date informed me I’d saved more than $800 last year by using the library!)

Call it fiction, autofiction, autobiographical fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction—who cares? If it’s well-written and using the novel form as a gateway to enlarge my understanding of the human condition, I’m in. (If you label your book a memoir but consciously tweak significant details, it’s not a memoir, it’s an autobiographical novel. On this topic I agree with John McPhee. But I love memoirs too. I just insist on making a distinction.)

Is there a category such as genre nerd? (Doubt it, but there should be.) I especially enjoy debates on contrasting aspects of novel genres. The essay by William Maxwell reprinted in a recent issue of Harper’s (December 2023) titled, “The Impulse Toward Autobiography,” (based on a lecture from 1963) is an insightful exploration of what personal qualities tend to influence an autobiographical writer’s creative impulses. It’s so reassuring when what you view as possible weaknesses in your own style are viewed in a positive light:

 

“The autobiographical writer is seldom interested in the future. He is enslaved by the past. Every affliction seems to bring with it some compensating talent. The autobiographical writer, with his enslavement to the past, has an unusually retentive memory.

The novelist has traditionally thought of himself as holding a mirror up to life. The autobiographical novelist holds a mirror up to the mirror.

Very often, the autobiographical novelist is partly a poet, and feels an impulse to share with the poet not only his language but his subject matter. He is also an innovator. He wants to give a greater place in the technique of the novel to memory.”

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Taking a break from packing and sorting, I wandered down to the hallway library of the old high school building where my soon-to-be vacated Florida apartment is located. I found a 1961 paperback edition of Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis and my heart contracted painfully. That novel not only influenced my initial decision to become a biochemist, it led me to Main Street, Elmer Gantry, Babbit and Kingsblood Royal. Sinclair Lewis gave fifteen-year-old me a model of the writer as scathing social critic, piercer of hypocrisy and foe of small-minded opportunists.  I owe everything to the author of Arrowsmith.

Speaking of Elmer Gantry—on a walk to meet friends later this evening, I was stopped by a young preacher on the fringes of a downtown Saint Petersburg park. When I declined to stop and listen to his spiel, he pressed a card into my hand:

What if you could read minds?
What if you could live forever?
What if you had already eaten your last meal?
What if death is the fine for breaking an eternal law?
What if someone paid that fine for sinners?

Ah, Sinclair, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

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William Maxwell, “The Impulse Toward Autobiography,” is included for the first time in a new edition of The Writer As Illusionist, Godine 2024