Literature 4-7-2009

Dolly Parton Dreams, Reconsidered

Or, "My Dream of Moving to the Country to Write a Book and the Pygmy Goats and Insouciance I Didn't Get." Writer Sari Gordon shares some hard-won wisdom for other creative-types entertaining the same town-to-country dream.


I’m leaning up against the truck, in the front yard of our old farmhouse in Ellsworth–about fifty miles from the Twin Cities, across the river in Wisconsin. I’m wearing pajama bottoms, a wife beater, smoking a cigarette and holding a rifle. I’m waiting for a squirrel.

The mailman drives his old beater station wagon down the driveway, carrying a package too big for our mailbox. My husband and I are the new kids on the block, which isn’t really a block, but a long line of corn farms. The mailman doesn’t look at the gun I’m holding. He doesn’t seem to care that I’m wearing my pajamas. We chat for a bit, and then he asks what I do for a living.

I’m a writer, I say. I’m writing a book.

Oh, he says, and goes back to work.

I coerced my husband into moving out here so I could pursue what so many other writers dream of, a nice place to be alone with my thoughts. My husband went along with it because the farmhouse came with a huge new garage.

My dream was inspired by Dolly Parton. The story goes that, once a year, Dolly spends a week in her childhood cabin in the mountains alone. She ditches the wardrobe, the make-up, and the wigs. In the cabin she has no phone, electricity, no plumbing. And once she gets there, she fasts for five days. After that, she says, the songs come, and she writes.

In an interview, Dolly said the experience “makes you miserable. But I’ve had some major moments with God and with my writing when I get to that place where the headaches leave and my body is cleansed. You think so clear.”

I wanted to think clear.

The initial plans for my year-round retreat were simple:

  1. Find a quiet rural home, remote but connected to the Internet.
  2. Stay in touch with my all my friends in the Twin Cities.
  3. Grow or buy fresh produce. (Good, strong, fair trade, organic coffee beans will magically appear, because I say so.)
  4. Sit at a window with a beautiful view.
  5. Shed all unnecessary things.
  6. Write a book about my life. (With all this clarity, it’ll be simple: assemble stories from my past, with newfound insights, like a sandwich.)

But there were so many things I didn’t know before I took the plunge, things that would have made the transition from town to country easier — tips I now pass on to you:

  1. People riding bicycles are not exercising. They are convicted drunks commuting.
  2. The kid at the dry cleaners, upon learning that your car is called a Mini Cooper, will tell you it’s ugly; and then the same kid will say, sincerely, “Have a nice day.”
  3. Eyebrow waxing should be left to professionals, or at least to people who know what symmetrical looks like. Also: a cheap haircut will always end with a free, prom-ready hairdo.
  4. Lawn ornaments are the topiaries of the agricultural class. Similarly, there is no disrespect in creating a yard display, in which the Virgin Mary and a goose sit side by side in a bathtub, both of them illuminated from within, even if the goose is bigger than the Mary. (Just try not to think “Mother Goose” every time you pass that house.)
  5. Fifty miles is too far away to keep your indie film knowledge current. Independent films, like tapas, aren’t very popular around here. Locals think neither is as filling as the real thing.
  6. Fifty miles is not far enough away to start a cult, however the sign at the entrance to your new town probably bears the names of Christian denominations you’ve never heard of.
  7. 20 acres of overgrown brush is not romantic. It’s a weed and tick farm.
  8. Farms are not nature; they are merchandise, like stacks of pants at the Gap.
  9. Cows look scary close-up.
  10. Your tap water is not fresh and delicious. It will give you diarrhea. Similarly, that creek in the backyard is actually spring run-off from area farms. Do not splash around in it: with all the pesticides and fertilizer, it’s much more polluted than city tap water.
  11. When you flush the toilet, the waste matter does not get whisked away to a place in St. Paul. It goes to the big tank under the grass outside the bathroom window. Then it comes out of a big rusty pipe that empties into the “creek.” Your bathroom, therefore, is actually just an outhouse with some cabinets from Menard’s, and the backyard is a grassy toilet seat lid.
  12. You will run into your therapist at Target and feel bad that you haven’t needed to see her, thereby driving her to clip coupons.
  13. Wednesday is always senior discount day. A related note about personal space: senior citizens don’t have it. A tip: If a senior gets too close to you in the checkout aisle, you may take a step away but don’t say, “Easy there, Arthur Murray, we don’t need to huddle up for heat anymore.” In Western Wisconsin, those too-close seniors will just smile and say thank you afterwards, and you will feel like an asshole.
  14. On the other hand, when the lady across the street comes over with fresh-baked banana bread, don’t hug her; it will frighten and confuse her.
  15. When you call 911, you will be talking to someone who might live down the street, so choose your emergencies carefully. This bears repeating: everyone, and I mean everyone, has a police scanner in their home. So be very sure that the emergency you are calling 911 about is a really good one.
  16. Baby raccoons stranded on your driveway is not an emergency.
  17. Acquire a collection of things necessary for country living, and display them in the yard around your home: rusty old snow blowers, shredders, tillers, cement mixers, brush cutters and, if you’re like us, a graffiti-covered bus slowly sinking into the ground.
  18. Grocery hints: cans of diced chilies, soy sauce and Ramen noodles are in the “ethnic foods” aisle; lefse, sauerkraut and cheese curds are not. Your checkout person might not recognize a plum. You may not be able to find whole peppercorns or fresh basil, but you will be able to get your hands on a gallon of Rico’s “nacho cheese” in a can.
  19. WalMart is evil only until you need to go there: the produce is cheaper and sometimes better than local grocery stores can provide. Small businesses depend on cheap ingredients, so WalMart’s leveraged buying is a boost to the local economy.
  20. Also, home-cooked Amish goods are nearly always made with the cheapest and industrial sized ingredients available. Fun fact: though the handicapped spaces are always full at WalMart, there are no horse-and-buggy spots.

Tips for writers moving to the country, specifically those of you who are lucky enough to find work writing for the local paper:

  1. Editors and readers do not need “in the trenches” reportage for local school board meetings. Just turn the printed agenda into sentences beginning with “the board approved a motion to” and turn it in.
  2. When covering a small-town board meeting, keep in mind that the location of the new half-million dollar municipal development projects will always, always be known as “the old Krugerman place.” No one will tell you where that is. You will not be given a map.
  3. When referring to “Olaf Svendrudssen,” board members will not say why he is important, who he is or how to spell his name. Ever.

Life lessons learned upon leaving Minneapolis for the wilds of Hager City, Wisconsin:

  1. Squirrels aren’t cute.
  2. Bunnies are pretty cute, but their poop looks (and apparently tastes) exactly like the kibble we feed our dogs.
  3. It turns out, one can have too many bunnies.
  4. Dogs eat bunnies, but it’s okay because (see above) more will come.
  5. About 1% of your current social circle will actually drive out to visit you; but upon arriving, they will not suddenly feel like sitting around to play acoustic instruments around a bonfire.
  6. You need a permit to have a bonfire.
  7. There is no line to vote.
  8. The newspaper is good reading the way Lucky Charms is good eating.
  9. It is normal to wave at any car within 5 miles of your home. (It is, however, recommended that you do not flip off any driver within 20 miles of your residence.)
  10. Everyone you see looks you in the eye and smiles.
  11. The people you meet and like in your new home, you will fall in love with forever.
  12. High school girls will call you “Honey,” regardless of your age.
  13. Everyone has a full-time job, a part-time job and a home-based business. There are “stress-reduction clinics” on every block in downtown Ellsworth — they are open on weekdays from 5 to 7 pm and include scratch-offs and free popcorn.
  14. I’m way behind on the latest restaurants, street closings in the Twin Cities — I still haven’t seen the bridge collapse site — but I am in regular contact with everyone I’ve ever met, thanks to  Facebook, so I never get lonely.
  15. And the book? I decided that there are already plenty of books in the world. The most successful ones can be found at Salvation Army for twenty-five cents, though the staff probably wouldn’t chase you if you swiped one.

About the author: Sári Gordon is a professional writer.