“Not Like the Rest of Us”: Ten Thoughts on Cole Porter as Native Hoosier

“Not Like the Rest of Us”: Ten Thoughts on Cole Porter as Native Hoosier

Mrs. Cole Porter The Biggest Things Writing

On Friday, June 1st at 6:30 PM, I’m going to be on John Strauss’ Indiana Public Radio show, Indiana Weekend, talking about Cole Porter’s hometown (and mine): Peru, Indiana. We recorded the interview last week, but I haven’t been able to get these remaining thoughts out of my head.

Extreme Makeover: Cole Porter Birthplace Edition

1.   Cole Porter was born on June 9, 1891 in this house in my hometown of Peru, Indiana. When I was growing up in Peru, I knew Cole Porter’s birthplace as the rather shabby apartment building on the left. A few years ago, the police found a meth lab in one of the apartments during a raid. This generated some negative press, which led to a wonderful effort to save the house and turn it into a B&B. Today, that house is for sale. The reason it’s for sale is that despite being absolutely beautiful and historical, the B&B doesn’t generate enough money because not enough people have reason to stay there. The whole thing makes me sad. Read this article if you want some backstory on this.

2.  I lived in Peru, Indiana from 1968 until 1987, and during that time, I had no knowledge whatsoever of who Cole Porter was, nor that I shared a hometown with one of the 20th century’s most prolific composers.

3. How could I not know this? Because I’m working class. Because I grew up in town with no bookstores, no NPR stations, no record stores, no internet. Because no one I knew ever talked about him. Why didn’t they talk about him? See #5.

This is how I found out who Cole Porter was.

4. I had to travel all the way to New York City to find out that I shared a hometown with Cole Porter. It was 1990, I was shopping for music in Tower Records. I came across a tribute album called Red, Hot + Blue, a tribute to someone named Cole Porter to benefit AIDS research, and it contained songs by some of my favorite artists at that time (Sinead O’Connor, U2, Annie Lennox). So I bought it. I realized I knew all the songs already…somehow. I opened up the jewel case to read the liner notes, and right there, “Cole Porter was born in Peru, Indiana…” I was dumbfounded.

5.  The next time I visited Peru, I asked my maternal grandmother, a member of the local historical society, “How can it be that I grew up in this town and didn’t know who he was? Why don’t we celebrate him more?” She said, “Well, it’s because he left, of course. And because, you know, he was…” She either said he was “queer” or “different.” I can’t remember which.

6. Today, Cole Porter is definitely celebrated and known in Peru. Proof of this:

He wasn't on the sign when I was growing up, unfortunately, but I'm glad he is now!

He wasn’t on the sign when I was growing up, unfortunately, but I’m glad he is now!

 

  • his name is now on the “Welcome to Peru” sign (it wasn’t when I was growing up)
  • the Cole Porter Festival (go to this if you can!)
  • more exhibits devoted to him at the local museum, including one of his trademark Cadillacs
  • there’s a sign to help out-of-towners find his gravesite at Mount Hope Cemetery

My prized possession

7.  Here is a T-shirt from a past Cole Porter Festival in Peru. I love this shirt and everything it represents, the question it raises: How do you celebrate one of the 20th century’s most sophisticated artists in a place where his brand of sophistication and artistry is not generally valued?

8.  Things I have heard people from Indiana say about Cole Porter:

  • “His music has nothing to do with Indiana.  It’s like he’s ashamed of us.”
  • “He never came back because he thought he was too good for this place.”
  • “He wasn’t like the rest of us.”
  • “I know he visited his mom a lot, and he had a standing order at Arnold’s Candies, and yeah, he’s buried here, but he’s not really from here, you know what I mean?”
  • “I guess Cole Porter’s B-day was today. Does anyone still listen to him?”

9.  For 20 years, I lived as an expatriate Midwesterner. I was what writer Calvin Trillin calls an “ExMid,” a term he uses to denote “someone who lives on either coast or abroad but still prefers to think of himself at least partly as a Midwesterner.” The ExMid harbors a particular fear: “The fear that his mother or aunt or cousin will be cornered by some neighbor at his hometown supermarket and informed that he has become too big for his britches.”  Cole Porter was not an ExMid, but I am. Big time. In fact, I am petrified that my aunt will be cornered at Harvey Hinklemeyers by one of her neighbors who will have read this blog post and tell her it’s really a shame I couldn’t find something nice to say on Cole Porter’s birthday.

10.  What is the most Hoosier song Cole wrote? If by “Hoosier,” you mean sentimental and nostalgic, then by all means, it’s “Old Fashioned Garden” or “Don’t Fence Me In,” but if you mean a song that represents his “true” feelings about his Midwestern roots, then I say it’s the little known ditty “Experiment,” written in 1933 for the musical Nymph Errant. A professor gives some final advice to his graduating students about what to do in the face of “philistine defiance.”

Experiment.
Be curious
Though interfering friends may frown.
Get furious
At each attempt to hold you down.
If this advice you always employ
The future can offer you infinite joy
And merriment
Experiment
And you’ll see.

Happy Birthday, Cole.

10 Things You Should Know about the Midwest Writers Workshop

10 Things You Should Know about the Midwest Writers Workshop

Writing

1.  The Midwest Writers Workshop, or MWW for short, happens in my town! A few miles from my house! Muncie, Indiana, July 26-28, 2012.

2.  MWW’s faculty this year includes a Pulitzer finalist, a paranormal romance YA author, four literary agents, a best-selling author of cozy mysteries, a poet/memoirist/indie publisher, and quite a few long-time editors and publishing professionals. Including Jane Friedman, who I’ve been following for three years (long before I moved to Muncie) and who I credit with saving my writerly butt from literary oblivion.

3.  MWW has been around for a long time: 39 years! Last year, I was on the faculty. This year, I’m the newest member of the Planning Committee. Some of the committee members have been working to make this conference happen for over 35 years. You can read more about the history here.

The Ball State Alumni Center.

4.  MWW is the only writers conference I know of that offers on-site, totally free “social media consulting”—a drop-in tutoring center where you can get your Facebook/Twitter/blogging act together.

5.  Veronica Roth, author of the best-selling, dystopian YA novel Divergent (which is really, really good) got her start at MWW. My fellow committee member Kelsey Timmerman also got his start at MWW. He attended a few years ago, pitched his idea to an agent, and thus his book became a reality: Where Am I Wearing: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes. There are many other success stories.  

6.  Remember when I wrote about how anxiety-inducing AWP is? Anxiety + Community = AWP. MWW, on the other hand, is small, intimate, encouraging—nothing at all like AWP. It’s open to anyone. You don’t have to apply to get in or secure a letter of recommendation.

7.  Remember when I wrote this post about how much I hate it when people ask me “How do I get published?” Well, here is your answer: Expand your circles! Get thyself to a writers’ conference! Here are a few other good reasons to go to a writer’s conference.

Jane Friedman, middle, and MWW director Jama Bigger, right

8.  If you read this blog because you teach creative writing, listen up. If you have strong students, don’t think that sending them to an MFA program is the only way to help them pursue their dream. Send them to MWW. Remember a few months ago, I asked, Should we make it our business to teach the business of creative writing? The response to that post was a resounding, Yes. Writers conferences are one way we can teach our students about the “biz.”

9.  If you read this blog because you’re an aspiring writer, listen up: I know you write and read and edit alone. You go online to find community and advice about what comes next. But you need to find community IRL. You need to stop Googling “How do I publish a book?” You need to fork out some dollars, because believe me, there’s nothing like spending some money to help you start taking yourself a little more seriously. You need to actually show up to an actual brick and mortar building where others like yourself have also shown up.

10.  I know I said this already, but this conference is in Indiana. Not in Boston or New York or even the bucolic Florida Keys. It’s in Muncie, Indiana. One reason why I left Indiana 20 years ago is that I believed you HAD to leave Indiana in order to be a writer (or an artist of any kind), but I came back two years ago because I wanted to help the next generation of Hoosier artists realize their dreams and become the people they want to be. When you’re poor or working class or live in a place where there isn’t a lot of literary activity, it’s not that easy to imagine yourself “becoming a writer.” That’s why bringing the publishing world to Indiana matters. A lot.

Will I see you there? This summer? Next summer for the 40th anniversary? I hope so. And do you know someone in the Midwest who wants to be a writer? Send them this link. Thank you. 

What They Wrote About: This Novel-Writing Teacher Reflects

What They Wrote About: This Novel-Writing Teacher Reflects

Teaching Writing

 

Here are the (purposely vague) premises of all the novels my students wrote this semester. I have indicated the writer’s gender thusly: (Italics = Male writer, Regular = Female student), and I’ve grouped the descriptions to reflect the particular critique circles I formed and placed them in. Meaning students in Class 1, Group 1 read each other’s manuscripts ONLY.

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My Students: Writing as Fast as They Can

Teaching

I want to introduce the two students who won the Total Word Count Challenge in my novel-writing classes: Sarah Chaney and Kayla Weiss. Each of these young women wrote over 42,000 words this semester, or about 3,500 words a week for 12 weeks. What’s significant about this is that they were only required to turn in 2,250 words per week—an assignment called “Weekly Words” which I talk about in detail here—but they both exceeded that amount…and then some.

Observations

I’d say that half of the students who took my class this semester walked in the door with a definite idea for a novel they very much wanted to write, and Sarah and Kayla were certainly in that group.

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